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17 tips for getting your best Christmas photos yet

(Image credit: Peter Muller, Getty Images)

Christmas arrives with an abundance of photographic opportunities, from the smallest festive details to groups shots filled with merriment.

Thanks to the cold and gloomy weather outdoors, however, and a variety of artificial lighting and atypical situations challenging you indoors, it can also be tricky to get the shots your want.

Here are 17 quick tips to help you get the most out of your picture taking this festive season, whether you’re shooting indoors or outside.


1. When people are your priority, tell your camera

You’ll no doubt be capturing images of friends and family, whether it’s at the dinner table or opening presents in front of the tree, or maybe a cheeky shot of grandpa snoozing in front of the television. Regardless of the situation, there are a number of ways in which you can make sure your camera knows when people are the priority.

Perhaps the most useful is face detection, as this will attempt to prioritise all faces in the frame for focus and exposure over other details. If you're using a DSLR with this feature, this will only work when using live view, rather than when using the viewfinder.

If you own a relatively recent camera with a touchscreen and you’re only capturing a single person in a particular image, you could also use the option to focus and expose for your subject by touching their face on the screen. 

2. Don't overlook shutter speed 

It’s easy to overlook shutter speed when photographing people, but it's important to keep this high enough to keep everyone sharp - particularly indoors, where light levels may be challenging.

For posed group shots you shouldn’t need something too high, although be aware that your camera or lens's image stabilisation system may cause the shutter speed to be lower than you want it for such an image. Try not to drop below 1/50sec or so, but aim to be at 1/100sec or 1/125sec to begin with. Using a wider aperture or higher ISO will help here.

For particularly animated children – or indeed, other livelier members of the family – try to use an ever faster shutter speed to make sure any movement is kept sharp. If conditions are particularly challenging, consider using flash.

3. Capture kids at their level

Image: Peter Muller, Getty Images

Image: Peter Muller, Getty Images

Kids love Christmas so what better time to capture their expressions of joy and surprise? Physically getting your camera down to their level can help you to take photos with more pleasing composition, and this is made easier if your camera has a rear display which tilts in some way.

It also helps to anticipate good photographic opportunities if you know what’s coming, such as when they’re opening presents. Pre-focusing your camera on their faces, for example, will mean you can get the shot at the prime moment rather than waiting for it to focus as the moment unfolds.

4. Get close

Christmas is a great time to crack out the macro lens, or at least focus closer than you may otherwise, as there are plenty of smaller details typical of the season that deserve to be captured in their own right. You’re also likely to end up with a more interesting selection of images if you’re not always focusing on the bigger picture. 

A close-up of a bauble on the tree; a festive bow or a ribbon wrapped around a present; the holly on top of the Christmas pudding – all of these things say Christmas without you needing to contextualise them with other details. 

It also pays to think about your camera’s colour mode here. While you may want to stick to standard or portrait options for more natural people shots, Christmas tree decorations and other festive embellishments can benefit from a more vibrant option to give images more impact.   

5. Deal with colour casts like a pro

Image: Caiaimage/Robert Daly, Getty Images

Image: Caiaimage/Robert Daly, Getty Images

Auto white balance systems can easily get confused when there’s a variety of different lighting sources, and this is very much the case at Christmas.

If you can set the camera to a specific white balance preset (such as incandescent) and get good results you should do this first, although it may be difficult to select the right one if there is more than one source of light. If shooting indoors under a stable set of lighting conditions, try adjusting the colour temperature in the white balance options until you’re happy with the result. 

Alternatively, capture a neutral target (such as grey card) and use this as your reference – your camera’s manual should be able to explain how this works on your particular model. Make sure to also shoot Raw images so that you can correct colour casts later on in post production without degrading your image. 

You shouldn't always look to remove any casts and keep everything too neutral, however. Scenes lit with candlelight, or those containing food, look better with the ambience of the scene retained. In such situations, check to see whether your camera offers an alternative Auto white balance option that retains the ambience of warmer lighting sources (many recent cameras have this).

6. Ditch your regular tripod for a more convenient alternative

If you need your camera to be still, the chances are you're not going to want to use a standard tripod for every shot as most are simply too cumbersome. 

A small and light tripod designed for travelling would make more sense, while a tripod alternative such as a Gorillapod would help you to be even more mobile.